One woman's story exposes trade that forces thousands into life of prostitution

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The Independent Online

"Maria" is a 20-year-old Bulgarian gypsy sold by her parents into a life of sexual slavery at the age of 17. Although she has been sold several times, she is just one victim of a barely noticed trade in human misery which sees hundreds of thousands of eastern European women disappear into forced prostitution every year, with Western countries their final destination.

"Maria" is a 20-year-old Bulgarian gypsy sold by her parents into a life of sexual slavery at the age of 17. Although she has been sold several times, she is just one victim of a barely noticed trade in human misery which sees hundreds of thousands of eastern European women disappear into forced prostitution every year, with Western countries their final destination.

The Council of Europe brought together police experts, government officials and women's groups at the weekend to devise a strategy to deal with trafficking in human beings, which has leapt over the past decade. They discussed Maria's case.

She was raped by members of the criminal gang which had "bought" her, badly beaten - on the soles of her feet or above her kidneys so she would not be marked - and put in daily fear of her life. Her passport and other identification documents were stolen. She was told she would have to work until an impossibly high debt - the "fee" for her passage and accommodation - had been paid. She was so tightly controlled that she was not even sure which country she was working in.

The only escape route open to her was to conceal a pregnancy long enough to become useless to the mafiya gang which had put her to work in the sex industry. She returned home to Bulgaria sixth months pregnant, destitute and traumatised. There she faced a fresh ordeal.

She could not find a job and she couldn't apply at the labour exchange for social support as she had never worked in Bulgaria. She was not an orphan and she was not yet eligible for the Bulgarian equivalent of child benefit.

She could not even register with a doctor as this would require identification documents, which were still in the hands of her captors. To get new documents she would have to go back to the place she had been taken from - a prospect which terrified her.

Maria is being treated in an EU-funded programme in Bulgaria by psychotherapist Nadia Kozhouharova, who says many of the women who have been trafficked have severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

"All the cases are really ugly, really very severe because of the continuous violence," she said. "I can compare trafficking in women with what people have survived and experienced in concentration camps. These women are all the time put on the edge between life and death. Every day they have to survive, every day they have to stay alive, really like in the concentration camps."

A recent case of a young English woman allegedly kidnapped by Violeta Boboci and Riza Engjellush, who were believed to be members of an Albanian gang, while on holiday in Italy and made to work as a prostitute was particularly shocking. The 18-year-old, from Southgate in London, where her father is a civil servant, had been given a two-week holiday in Rome as a birthday present.

She allegedly accepted a lift and found herself a prisoner in a flat in Vicenza, ferociously beaten and forced to have sex with up to 15 clients a day. Italian police raided the apartment after girl managed to identify its location in a hurried telephone call to relatives. What happened to this woman - who is now recovering back in London - provides a glimpse of a trade taking place across Europe.

Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Albania are major sources of women coerced into working as prostitutes. A few are quite literally kidnapped from bars or discos. Many more tricked with false promises of respectable jobs as dancers, models or airhostesses. Naïve young girls just out of school are lured with the offer of unrealistically high wages and the promise of glamorous travel and nice clothes. But the Council of Europe's experts say that even those who know they will work in the sex industry have no inkling of the life of virtual slavery that awaits them.

Italy and Germany are the main destinations, but a recent study co-authored by Linda Regan of the University of North London, found that seven out of 10 prostitutes in London are of eastern European origin.

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